Monday, January 17, 2022

Genres that Shaped My Early Reading Self

 January 17, 2022

I gave my students several prompts to choose from to write some literacy narratives: stories about the way in which people, moments, or events helped shape their sense of themselves as readers and writers.  I thought I'd write to a couple of the prompts along with them.

When I was an elementary student, there were a lot of phases I went through in terms of genres I read.  The earliest I can remember was probably humorous poems.  I remember being introduced to a poem by my second-grade teacher called “The Backwards Poem”.  I can still recite it to this day.  It began, “One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight.”  My little primary school brain thought it to be a very clever poem, and I sought out other humorous poets, like Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.  The sing-song nature of these poems was infectious and delightful to me. I loved the musicality and the rhythm in them.  I’m sure my mother, on the other hand, got tired of hearing me say, “Hey Mom–listen to this one!” over and over again while she was trying to cook dinner and clean up after five young children every night.

About this time I was also very invested in comic books.  Most specifically, I loved the Archie comics, but I also read a fair share of Daffy Duck, Richie Rich, and a wide variety of superhero comics.  I don’t know when I first got ahold of one of those brightly colored magazines that told the antics of Archie and the gang, but I do know that I associated those comics with trips to visit my grandparents.  Every year my parents would pile all five of their California kids into the back of our 1970’s Plymouth Station Wagon and we would make the long trek across five states to visit Grandma and Grandpa Mayes for a white Christmas.  Although it didn’t always snow, most years it did, and it was magical for kids who lived in Garden Grove, California, where the winters consisted of only slightly chilly temperatures in the deep of winter.  In order to occupy us on those long drives–it must have been quite the undertaking to drive five kids under 11 halfway across the country–my mom gave us some of our Christmas presents early.  Anything that could entertain us on the road became an early gift:  comic books, Colorforms, Rubic’s cubes (for the older kids), baby dolls, toy trucks, or anything that didn’t have too many pieces and didn’t make noise.  Comic books were one of the favorites.

In my later elementary years, I found mythology.  There was a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology that I must have checked out and re-read five or six times during my fourth-grade year. I was fascinated by the capricious ways the gods manipulated humans and each other.  They were often temperamental and fickle, but just as frequently cunning and creative, and sometimes sympathetic.  It was my first real glimpse of characters with depth and multi-faceted personalities.  The Dick and Jane readers we had when I was learning to read didn’t have motive or struggle or conflict; that simply wasn’t their purpose.  But these mythological stories were not only meant to teach lessons; they intended to be entertaining and engaging, and they were.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned that what I thought of as ‘mythology’ was only one set–albeit a well-known set–of cultural myths handed down from generation to generation.  Learning the Greek myths weren’t the only kinds of cultural mythologies was one of my initial epiphanies that societies often privilege one voice over all others, and that seeing those other voices and stories and cultures was an act of stepping outside of one’s own experience in the world to learn about others.  In order to learn about other cultures’ mythologies, I had to go out of my way to find them.

In fifth grade, I found my way into fairy tales.  It was a natural progression from the mythological stories I had been reading.  I don’t mean the Disney versions of the tales, I mean the dark and sometimes gruesome stories of the Brothers Grimm.  Again, my school library was the home of a giant book of these tales, and after having checked out this book a couple of times to read, I saw that there was another book, similar in size and content.  I started digging into the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  The horrifying “The Red Shoes” and the ridiculous “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were among my favorites.  It’s strange that although I strove in real life to be friendly, kind, and happy, and was very much a people-pleaser, I was drawn to some relatively dark stories where people’s bad behaviors were often dealt with through some of the harshest punishments meted out.

At the same time I was deeply entrenched in the worlds of fairy godmothers and evil goblins and magic and spells, I also stumbled upon one of the first non-fiction books I ever remember reading.  Somehow I stumbled upon Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, and it was transformative.  I read about a young girl who was trapped in her silent and dark world, frustrated and angry about not being able to communicate with anyone.  Her world collided with Annie Sullivan, seemingly the only person who, with persistence and determination, could manage to slowly chip away at the wall Keller found herself behind.  Deaf and blind during that time in history, Keller could easily have been pushed aside, abandoned, or worse, and yet fortune or destiny or chance matched her with the woman who would teach her the way to communicate the fierce intellect and fiery spirit that had been bound up inside her.  It was another book I read and re-read, and it made me realize two very important things.  The first was that we never really know what is going on in someone else’s mind unless they are willing or able to share it.  The second was that people’s lives, their everyday existence, could be a story.  Our lives are stories.  Every one of us has one to share.  I went on to read other autobiographies and biographies, notable among them was the story of Joan of Arc.  Her faith, confidence, and selflessness were undeniably inspirational and awe-inspiring.  And at such a young age!  I guess even in my pre-teen days, I was drawn to stories of strong powerful women who made their mark.

At this point in my young reading life, my fiction and non-fiction fares continued on parallel lines.  Fiction found me moving from fairy tales to stories of witches and witchcraft, while my interest in non-fiction progressed from learning about strong people in history to learning about history itself.  I became engrossed in World War II, and more specifically, the Holocaust.  If my mother had paid the least bit of attention to what I was reading, she might have been concerned.  She didn’t, however.  I was a good kid, did very well in school, and caused no trouble for anyone.  It never even occurred to her to pay attention to what I was reading; she was just happy I could occupy myself for long stretches of time.  Not that I was reading either of those genres as how-to manuals or anything.  The stories about witches and witchcraft tended toward the lighthearted and fanciful, something like “Bewitched”, but there was definitely a dark and sinister tone to some of the books I read.  I didn’t get too entrenched, though, because while I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not I believed in that kind of supernatural power, I was smart enough to know I didn’t want to take any chances of accidentally signaling to some otherworldly figure that I might be interested in joining their ranks or somehow raising their ire.  (To this day, this is my rationale for not dabbling in such seemingly childish yet somehow sinister games like playing with a Ouija board.)  I imagine my interest in reading so much in this genre during this time, if I had to step back and look at it objectively, is that there was a lot of tension and instability in my household during that time, over which I had no control.  Perhaps reading about witches who had the power to manipulate and change circumstances for themselves or others gave me a little solace and a vicarious sense of power.  The Holocaust books I read during that time were almost entirely first-hand accounts of survivors of the concentration camps–an extension of my autobiography phase–and served as a counterpoint to the books about witchcraft.  Books about witchcraft were about wielding power over others, whereas survival memoirs were about the physical, emotional, and spiritual damage done to human beings when those in power give in to their unfettered desire for control and lose sight of humanity.  The atrocities I read about in the books about the Holocaust were far more horrific than anything I read about in the fictional stories of revenge-driven witches.  Humans have great potential for rising above adverse circumstances and persevering through trauma, but so do we have a terrible potential to give in to our basest desires and put self above all others.  It is up to us to decide which story we want written about us in the end.

From a young age, books have been a constant companion for me.  They were a way for me to not just try on identities and learn about parts of myself that were fledgling characteristics at the time, but also to try on ideas that were unfamiliar to me. They allowed me to grow an understanding of the world around me and begin to understand the nature of human beings, both good and evil, from a safe space within the confines of my home and my library. I retreated into the world in between pages so that I could step out into the world I inhabited with a better understanding of how I fit into it. 

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